Spreadsheet Error Potentially Debunks Another Study: Who is Holding Academia Accountable?

I am no stranger to deadlines and know how challenging it is to work through sets of numbers and assumptions to present findings in a clear manner to decision makers. I think it is important to get it right, no matter the cost. Sometimes I need to ask for extra time after promising I would finish earlier, and other times I have to stay up all night working to make certain analysis was done correctly. While I don’t like to admit these things, people are counting on me to be as accurate as possible, and I need to make sure I can stand behind that accuracy. To me, nothing feels more damaging professionally than presenting hasty analysis, laden with mistakes; especially if it appears to have been done under the auspice of bias.

And yet, even in the ivory towers of higher thought and research, there appears to be a problem with a lack of professionalism coming to light. Last summer, it came to light that Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff had errors in their study that concluded there was a link between governments who borrow heavily and sluggish economic growth. When a college student sought to use their work, he asked for the source data and found their spreadsheet had unexplainably excluded a number of data points, which would have weakened their conclusions. The research, which was conducted in 2010, was not found to have these errors until 2013. How come no one caught it sooner? The main criticism is the research was not published in a peer reviewed journal, so basically nobody was expected to check their work. It would seem prudent for policy makers to check the veracity of the research before using it in decision making, but unfortunately they didn’t.

It appears now another spreadsheet conundrum has come to light to cast doubt on more hot-button research findings. Just a few days ago, on May 23, 2014, Chris Giles, an editor for the Financial Times, boldly came out to mention inconsistent findings he has discovered in Thomas Piketty’s work Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Picketty’s research suggests that wealth inequality is increasing and will lead to economic instability. Giles claims after reviewing some of Picketty’s spreadsheets that “some numbers appear simply to be constructed out of thin air” and “that some of the data are cherry-picked or constructed without an original source.” The research was not peer reviewed in a proper sense, but published by Harvard in a book written by Picketty. Giles points out that when adjusting for what sees as Picketty’s errors, the growth in wealth inequality doesn’t appear to be as extreme nor as concerning.

The clear issue that needs to be addressed is how come nobody is reviewing the work of these world class economists? No matter someone’s title and prestige, that does not put them above peer review. Not surprisingly, I am not a world class economist, and my work is reviewed thoroughly by several people. That is okay, because I welcome this and stand behind my work. However, a more concerning question arises as to whether these economists are manipulating their work to prove a political agenda. We simply don’t know, but why risk the accusations? One should take the time to do the analysis correctly to alleviate any doubt. This is not only an onus on the researchers, but the publishers as well.

I can’t help but point out that John Maynard Keynes understood economists were fallible, and despite this, major policy makers would rely upon their opinion and research. Keynes famously stated in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) that, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

 I think there is nothing more powerful than your ability to think independently, and ask questions based on your own unbiased observation. Never be afraid of asking questions about what you don’t understand, or how an analysis was prepared. That includes anything we may provide to you here at Midwest Business Solutions.